A staple of intro philosophy courses is the ethics of runaway trolleys. There’s probably an interesting sociological study as to why this is so, but rather than delve into that I thought I’d share a new-sounding version of the trolley problem due to Carolina Sartorio posted on Philosophy from the (617).
For those who’ve missed this line of study before, the puzzles arise from reflecting on cases like the following.
Basic Trolley Case: There is a run away trolley car careening down some railway tracks towards two tunnels. If it stays on the track it is on, it will kill five people working in the eastern tunnel. If you pull a switch it will move onto a side track, go through the western tunnel and kill the person working in it. Assume you can’t do anything to stop the car or change its path except pull this switch. You pull the switch, saving the five and leading to the one’s death.
Fatman: Same runaway car, but without the switch. This time, you’re standing on a cliff looking over the track the car is about to careen down. If unchecked it will kill the five people in the tunnel. Fortunately, there is a very fat man standing beside you – fat enough that if somehow he were to fall onto the track his sheer mass would stop the trolley. You give him a little shove, he falls off the cliff onto the train tracks is killed by the trolley (if not the fall) and the five are saved.
A significant number of people think your action in the first case is permissible, perhaps even mandatory, but the action in the second case is impermissible. Providing a reason for the different attitudes towards the two actions is not entirely trivial, which I guess is one of the reasons these cases are staples of intro philosophy courses.
Here’s Carolina’s case.
Fatman*: There are five people tied up to a track. One of them is a fat man, and somehow I can shove him into the path of the train (although I can’t save him!) to stop the train before it kills the other four.
There’s two puzzles here. The first, in which Carolina is interested, is whether the action is permissible in this case. The second, which seems more fun to me, is whether we can tell anything like a plausible story in which the facts are as Carolina stipulates. I’m moderately dubious that this can be done, but I should never underestimate the powers of storytellers.
I wonder if the intuitions about the cases will differ depending on just how the details are set out. Just for fun, here’s a variant that I think is like the Basic Trolley Case.
Evil Demon: An evil demon has set up a run away steam engine to travel through five tunnels, killing the people tied to the tracks in each tunnel. You can’t stop the train (it’s got a really powerful engine) but you can change the order in which the train goes through various tunnels. You notice that the man tied to the tracks in tunnel #5 (i.e. the tunnel the train is scheduled to go through fifth) is really fat. It looks probable the train will derail when it hits him. (It’s a pretty resilient train, so it can run over the supermodels in the other four tunnels without being derailed, but it can’t handle the fat man. Probably.) So you reroute the train to go through his tunnel first, it hits him, kills him and is derailed, saving the four.
Is this action permissible? Is it mandatory? Is it a sign of completely awful character that one even thinks about these puzzles? Of worse character to write about them? I don’t know – I just do time travel.